Tag Archives: family

The Fight for Time

A friend once told me that if you really want to do something, first write down all the good excuses you’ve got not to do it. When it comes to writing, I’ve got a few:

  • All the words have been said.
  • I don’t have the right notebook or pen.
  • People will think I’m a fake.
  • People who didn’t like me in high school will say bad things about me.
  • I can’t teach AND write.
  • My kids keep interrupting me.
  • It’s too late. I should be further along by now.
  • I’ll wait until my kids are older.
  • Nobody cares.
  • I’m not that good.
  • I’m tired.
  • I’m hungry.
  • I just got a text.
  • I should check my email.
  • I’ll look at Facebook instead.
  • I’m way behind on laundry.
  • I should grade papers or revise tomorrow’s lesson or brainstorm a new unit.
  • I have nothing new to say.
  • All the other authors said it better.
  • I’ll offend someone.
  • I’m not spiritual enough.
  • I don’t have time.

This week I said goodbye to another group of college writing students. And the last words I left them with were: “Find that thing — that thing you don’t think you have time for or that thing you loved but stopped doing when you were 11 or 12 because you didn’t think you were good enough, and make time for it.”

As usual, I was mostly saying words I need to hear.  Giving reminders and passing along wisdom that good teachers and friends have shared with me.

Maybe a couple of them were reminded that they do actually enjoy writing — but for others, writing is not the thing, but it’s something else: dancing, drawing, gardening, baking, yoga, reading — whatever. I tell them, just spend a little time on it, and maybe even release the temptation to think you need to be so good at it all the time. I read aloud this piece by Anne Lamott in which she urges us to find “half an hour of quiet time for yourself…unless you’re incredibly busy and stressed, in which case you need an hour.” And then the students walk out the door to study for exams, and I head home to a house full of people who call me Mom, and the hard work begins — we have to figure it out. We have to fight for it.

Excuses are, of course, easiest when I’m the busiest. It’s so much easier to blame my lack of writing on this family I have (who insist on eating several times a day), the boys’ baseball schedules (three boys in baseball is no joke, just saying), the papers I need to grade (collected 143 yesterday + 17 ten-page research projects on Thursday), and the laundry I never put away (thank goodness for the door on that laundry room.) Oh, and that awful habit I’ve gotten into of checking all things on my phone — email, Instagram, Facebook — one last time before I go to bed.

But the reality is that I make time for what matters — and too often I find myself using my busyness as a not-so-clever form of procrastination. “I would, but first I need to…”

Just because something is good for me doesn’t mean it’s easy for me.

And this is especially true for writing. Red Smith said, “There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.”

The month of May is a perfect storm for calendars — little league, end-of-the-school-year this and that, deadlines, and, and…but if not now, when? There will always be calendars, always be excuses.

So, I’m committing — on this Saturday morning when I tiptoed out of bed to steal an hour before the rest of my house wakes up — to taking the advice I offered my students about fighting for time for the things that matter in the months ahead. I know summer is coming and the pace of our household will slow a bit, but other things will be there too, including excuses.

Saving Up Stories

Photo: Dana VanderLugt

This blog post was originally published on The Twelve

My grandpa passed away last winter. One of the things I miss most is saving up stories for him.

My family still gathers around grandma’s table every Sunday, and most weeks my husband, kids, and I are there. My Grandpa was never one for much small talk, for casual conversation – but he loved stories, especially those told around that well-worn, oak table, and especially when the table was extended to its full length with a mismatch of chairs pulled up around it. As I grew, I was trained to be attentive, to watch and listen for captivating moments, to save up stories for Sunday and for Grandpa because I knew he would want to hear a good one, and that he’d probably re-tell it over and over to each person who visited that week.

For the past month, I’ve been gathering with a handful of people at the local pub on Monday nights, reading through the New Testament together. We sit around the table with the text open, exploring the story. We read the verses – some of which I admit I’ve read only in isolation in a greeting card – in context. We talk about what surprised us, what we struggled with, what convicted us, what gave us hope. We have better conversation than I’ve had in a church setting in quite awhile – because we’re just talking about the story. We are trying to come to some sense of understanding and allowing lots of space for questions.

This week in one of my classes we were discussing a novel just before I introduced the next writing assignment. One student’s hand suddenly rose. “Does this paper have to have a thesis?” she asked. “Do we have to come right out and tell our reader what our main point is? Because I love reading and discovering it myself, just like in this book we’re reading; I like when the author lets me figure it out rather than telling me what I’m supposed to think.”

Doesn’t it seem that sometimes stories work when arguments fail? That stories have power that facts and statistics can’t hold? That parables, anecdotes, and real-life accounts often make more room for questions and complexities than a 5-point lecture or pages and pages of statistics? As a teacher, I find myself scavenging for good stories, for examples, because facts, figures, and tricky vocabulary often can’t close the gap.

There is no doubt I’ve been fed physically around my grandparents’ table throughout my life – buttery rolls fresh from the oven, ham garnished with horseradish, apple crisp made with Cortlands from the family orchard. But words have filled me there, too. It’s where I learned my voice, learned how to spin a tale – what details mattered and what might be better left out. I grew up on a steady diet of familiar fables, of images and lines worth repeating. Those stories shaped me and gave me an appetite for more. Stories nourish; they fill us up in a way that arguments don’t. They introduce us to new flavors, new ideas, different ways of seeing the world. There’s space and mystery in a story – it’s not all given to us; there is not one right answer. Stories provide a way back to each other – and make room for the rough edges of life.

When life is complicated, when there is wrestling and uncertainty, when there are disagreements with those across the aisle – or the dinner table – stories are the sound of chairs moving and of making room for each other.

Photo: unsplash.com

 

Guest Post: Poems and Process

Earlier this summer, I wrote about interviewing my grandma with my cousin, Sara Lamers Messink. A poet, a teacher, and one of my first friends, Sara and I grew up bridging the 80 miles that separated us with weekly letters exchanged back and forth. We eventually became college housemates and fellow English majors. We share a mutual understanding and appreciation for those things our family values most: the land, the table, stories. She has taught me to pay better attention to the world and words around me.

Sara and I (a few years ago) on Grandma's orchard.
Sara and I (a few years ago) on Grandma’s orchard.

Sara has graciously offered to share a few poems; below are a few that resonated with me, along with a Q&A about writing and her process.

——-

I phone to say

I’ll be there, Sunday dinner.
Grandma’s reply is wind,
the shudder of trees, birds’
bitter cries.  Like me she cares

little for idle talk, talk
too small to bridge the distance.
The shortening of days,
a chill breaking in.

She asks of a friend, expecting.
I tell the truth: she lost it.
Wait for a lament
that does not come,

just silence first, then a sigh
that shatters miles with bold truth –
It’s for the best.  It knows, the body.
Outside the first leaves begin to turn.

What inspires you to write? What makes you keep going? 

I’ve always felt compelled to write, I think because I have always loved to read and feel a strong urgency to read widely, deeply, and massively.  If I accomplish nothing else in my life except inhaling and digesting books, I’ll be satisfied.   That said, being able to contribute something to the vast amount of writing out there in the world is both an honor and is humbling.  I write to be a part of something a tiny bit bigger than me, in this way.

It’s a challenge to discover new ways to stretch my writing and that challenge is part of what keep me going.  I come from a family with a strong work ethic (yes, workaholics!) and feel guilty when I don’t write.  By this token, then, it can be deeply satisfied just to get some content down on paper, no matter how awful.  A wise instructor and mentor once told me “you’ll have the whole rest of your life to write good poems.”  To that end, focusing on generating material is a way to prevent the “it’s not any good” worries from stopping me from writing at all.

——

Blues on Sunday

You’re at it again,
crowded by peppers, herbs,
oils, pots steaming.
This time a soup:
rich heat, chipotle, cayenne,
this time blues on the stereo,
from room to room it wafts,
sultry pleas and to what
do I owe this pleasure
of staying in, January Sunday night,
snow splayed across the lawn
but no mind, we’re in here, this warmth, this
lovely heat, alive?

The knives you work
like a sleight of hand, garlic,
onion, thyme, tomatoes
diced down, tiniest forms.
I can’t do much but pour
the wine and raise a glass
to vines, black soil, hands that toil,
seared by sun to pluck
this swollen fruit piece by piece
and plunk into buckets
as the chicken stock, olive oil
commingle and scent the air,
flood it, the weight
of the heady voice, horns and sax, wailing
guitar and blustery sadness.
That certain loss.

The “he” who’s gone
and done wrong, left town
with money, with her battered
heart, rent past due,
kids all sick, boss out of line and here
in our small kitchen
the last yellow light of evening
goes and leaves us
warmer than we’ve ever been and
we sink into soup, the blues, its wail, its cradle
stunned with gratitude,
the purest joy we beg
to keep coming.

Can you talk a bit about your writing rhythm? Do you show up at the desk and play/experiment? Focus on a particular project? 

My process depends on whether I’m working in poetry or prose.  Poetry is much slower, but that’s what I gravitate toward.  When I sit down to write a poem, I first spend a large block of time (at least an hour) reading published poems.  This gets my head in the right place.  I like to have lots of uninterrupted, non-structured time for poetry, largely because it takes so long to enter into that mental and emotional space where poems come from.  Ideally, I’ll have four hours or more to oscillate between reading poems; generating new, rough material; revising poems-in-progress; and polishing or ‘picking at’ nearly-done drafts.  I work best when I am working on several poems that are in various stages of done-ness.  I always have lots of projects going at once so that I can bounce back and forth between them – when I run out of steam on one, I take up another.

I find that the more you know and learn and understand about writing, the harder it becomes to actually do it.  I don’t believe in waiting around for ‘inspiration’ to strike – you have to show up and force yourself to do the work.  (I have also been influenced by several writing teachers who have impressed this notion upon me).  With poetry, especially, I have carved out habits and patterns that help me to get the work going: I have to write in the writing room in my house (I can’t work on poems anywhere else) and I work by hand (as opposed to via a computer) throughout most of the process.  It’s not until very late in the game that poems find their way to the computer screen.

When it comes to essays and fiction, I’m less married to single process, though in both of these cases I need to complete an entire “messy” draft of the thing before I do any revision – I’m not a revise-as-you-go type.  Right now I’m working on a second novel and have borrowed a lot of ‘rules’ from the National Novel Writing Month (which takes place in November each year) guidelines: I set a target word count and don’t quit for the day until I’ve reached it.  I love being in the middle of many projects at once (all in various stages of complete-ness) because it prevents me from getting bored and helps me return to each project with refreshed vision.

——

I Never

got to see them kill the chickens,
my grandparents’ farm eighty-some miles

from home.  Though some summer days
I helped feed, the coop a gray half-dome

tin igloo, low and strange,
that bright tunnel all straw and sticks.

The water they drank floated in plastic jugs
sliced to halves, there was corn they’d jab at,

pounding wings that kicked up dust and straw.
Cousins told me of the killings, how some Saturdays

they’d do as many as half a dozen, hand out
fresh hens to aunts for Sunday dinner.

Grandma tearing feathers from hot bodies
like tangles from a comb.

It was the way the legs still ran after the head
was severed that amused my cousins most,

that panicked race-without-a-finish-line,
survival-of-the-fittest in reverse.

I never saw it but can see my grandparents,
hands careworn, easy with the blood,

the mess, the stench – none of it too crude
to manage, the picture as real to me as

our grandmother, those same summer months,
pressing milkweed to our hands as we walked

through orchards, tugging back the petals
down to the bumpy pod, saying Look:  

These could be fish if we really wanted
them to be.  And we never dreamed
of arguing.

 

How does the process and practice of writing impact you personally? Do you write for an audience? Is there a feeling or maybe even a word that describes what meets you as you write?

Well, I write for myself, primarily, and not for others.  I never once think about an audience or reader when I’m drafting.  I write because I have to do it and feel compelled to do it, and it is satisfying to (finally) do it well.  Publishing is not all that important to me, especially when it comes to poetry (it’s publish or perish in academia, so my motivation to publish there is mainly career-related).  I’d rather make effective art than publish it at all.  I do benefit, of course, from feedback from others – that’s a hugely essential part of the process.   I’ve not yet published any fiction, but do hope to.  My motivation here is to meet the challenge of producing effective writing.  If others read and enjoy it, that’s all the better, but I’m not dependent on a reader – or a reader’s approval – to keep going.  It sounds trite, I know, but it’s the intrinsic reward that pays off the most.

That said, writing – whether it’s poetry, fiction, or nonfiction – is a way to understand your world and to wrestle with the dissonances in your life.  It’s a way to work toward making sense of things that cannot be articulated in any other way.  Writing provides an opportunity to put the rest of life on pause, to step out of the endless, busy stream of life and to reflect and ruminate on the larger picture, on the important things.  It’s a way to record and also think through the various phases and stages of life, which I’m grateful for.  Making art is one of the most spiritual things you can do, at least this has been true for me.  It forces you to be honest, but also connects you to something bigger than yourself.  

Mundane turned Miraculous

old-orchard-pic

Upon the death of our trees,
I learn the Hebrew word for orchard is paradise

I’ve grown up watching my father eat apples
straight off the trees.
His mouth wide,
he’d take one giant bite,
tearing the skin,
exposing the belly,
carving out one side of the round, crimson masterpiece

with the sharp of his teeth.

Then, baring the pearl white
of its insides,
and without noticing his own arm,
he’d toss the fruit
a few rows behind him, an offering
of half-eaten McIntosh,

Ida Reds, Galas, Spys.

We could afford this.

They were ours.
We could take only one bite and
throw it down, throw it back.
We had no reason to finish every bite,
to eat all the way to the core, to the seeds.
  ~
img_3513
I wrote this poem in 2001, before kids, before meeting my husband, before college graduation. It was about that time that I started writing about my family’s apples, our trees. My grandpa was an apple farmer, and when the orchard he managed closed up, when the equipment was auctioned off piece by piece, when the fall came and no one was out picking, I became keenly aware of how much of me and my family was wrapped up in that land, of how those rolling acres were the setting for so much of our story. 
 

Now, several years later, my mom and dad have planted apple trees on nearly every available inch of their land. And so, when I get to witness my boys playing on the farm, picking apples, or riding the tractor with Papa, I well up with gratitude. And I remember the words I wrote late at night in that college dorm room nearly two decades ago:

The miraculous can be so close to mundane that we often miss it.

I’ve grown up watching my dad grab a fresh apple off a tree, take one giant bite, and then throw it back into the tall grass surrounding another row of Spies, Ida Reds, Galas.  It seems he would do this without even noticing the apple, or maybe with the deliberate arms of a man who knew he could take only one bite, a kind of taste testing of a masterpiece.

I’ve started to take pictures of them now, of the trees, of the apples, of the baskets we carry them in.  I’m terrified of losing them. My kids may not grow up with the indulgence of taking just one bite, then throwing the apple back, knowing there are millions more hanging on the trees.  They may not get the chance to go for rides in the back of the pickup truck on Sundays, with their Grandpa driving, aunts and uncles and mothers and fathers sitting on the back of the cab, ducking under low-hanging branches, getting off while Grandpa tries to drive the raggedy truck up the hills.  They may not be hushed to spot a couple of deer nibbling off branches, to be quiet so that everyone can get a glance at the timid creatures before the white tails run, bouncing farther into the trees. They may not know this. They may not live this.

  img_5311

But my kids are living this, I’m still living this, and this time – miraculous or mundane – I’m not missing it.  Each fall, I’m extraordinarily grateful not just for the sweet taste of apples, but for the memories my kids are planting – for the the dirt under their fingernails, the holes in their jeans, and the sticky chins I’m washing.

img_3532
Our apple crisp

Apple Crisp is my go-to fall dish. It’s much faster and easier than pie, and the smell that fills the house is almost as good as the taste. My recipe is a combination of my Grandma Lamers and Betty Crocker — Grandma skips the oatmeal; Betty uses less butter.  Serve with a dollop of whipped cream or a scoop of vanilla ice cream.

  • 5-6 medium tart apples (I like Paula Reds or Courtlands)
  • 3/4 cup brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup flour
  • 1/2 cup old-fashioned oats
  • 1 tsp. cinnamon
  • 1 tsp. nutmeg
  • 1 stick butter, cold & sliced thin

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Grease sides and bottom of a pie pan or 8×8 square pan.  Peel, slice, and scatter apples in the pan. Eat a few as you work. You’ll have to cut up a couple extra because your kids will walk by and steal a few, too. It’s okay — they’re good for them.

Mix remaining dry ingredients, adding butter last and cutting it into the dry mixture. Sprinkle the mixture liberally over the top of the apples.

Bake about 40 minutes, or until the top is golden brown. Serve warm. It reheats just fine.

Questions

 

Grandma, about 60 years ago.
Grandma, about 60 years ago.

Earlier this summer my cousin, Sara, and I sat on my aunt’s couch with my 86 year-old grandmother between us. We asked her questions and then listened as she talked about her life growing up on Seneca Street as the eighth of ten children, about playing hopscotch and paper dolls, about how she wished she had stayed in school past the age of 16. She told us about rationing during World War II and about how my grandpa bought his first Ford and then started “coming around” to see her. She admitted her years of worry and how she’s not ashamed to say she’s “done a lot of praying” for her children, grandchildren, and now her great grandchildren.  This woman whose life has centered around her family, her table, talked about how she preferred a full table, a noisy house. “I was always glad to see you coming, and hated when you left,” she said. “And the more that came the better.” She lived a life of practical hospitality — always making enough dinner for whomever she expected and then some extra for any guests — or strangers — who might walk through the door.

It was a beautiful day of listening to a woman who isn’t always the first to speak, one who is usually standing in the kitchen while she pushes everyone else to have a seat, one who has never given a lot of unsolicited advice.

My family is very close, but not overly affectionate. We are rational, Midwestern apple farmers. We gather — whoever is able to make it — weekly, but few “I love you’s” are spoken, though they are known. Few hugs are given, unless someone is leaving for months. We value stories, laughter, and being together, but we don’t always know how to say all that. We are good at showing up, but not always good at talking about it.

So, when my cousin brought up the idea of inviting my grandma for an interview, I hesitated. I quietly worried Grandma would think it was silly, worried she wouldn’t want all that attention, all that feeling. But as Tuesday afternoon ended, she must have thanked us no less than 10 times.

I’m still processing that afternoon and there are 10 more essays I could write about the experience, but my mind keeps coming back to that simple act of acting questions and then being quiet enough to listen. I’ve been thinking about all the questions I’ve missed asking because I’ve been busy talking, doing, or thinking.

As a teacher, I do lessons on questioning. I encourage my students to ask “thicker” questions as  readers, to dig deeper, to push more. I more often need to take my own advice.

When my own sons ask me a question, I’m too often too busy to listen or looking for the quick answer, the right answer, instead of questioning back, instead of taking the time to stop and wonder together. While a bit of space from my kids is healthy and needed (those times when I say: go down to the basement, outside and I don’t want to see/hear you for 30 minutes), it’s those moments I slow down to sit with them, to be with them, that they have a chance to say the things I don’t hear amid life’s usual background noise.

In this wild world of violence and terror and division,  (and that just covers the presidential election) we may need to stop and ask more questions. When someone says something we disagree with, our initial bent is almost always toward defensiveness. But maybe we don’t need to fix it. Fix them. Maybe we can just ask more questions.

There is almost always more brewing below the surface than we can first see — and a lot of ground can be made up in the space created between questions and answers.

Grandma's first selfie, after our interview this summer.
Grandma’s first selfie, after our interview this summer.

 

Broken

 

broken image

It was just a few minutes after I had shooed the boys outside when I found them – all three – peering down into a trash can that had been dragged into the garage. The teamwork and silence were a clue that this scene needed further investigating.

At the bottom of the bin I saw a small robin, struggling for breath. The details were fuzzy, but involved a Nerf gun, the bird (which I gathered from later confessions may have been injured or slow) and its transport to our garage.

For an instant, I wondered if this was just a “boys will be boys” moment, but as I looked into the faces of my little guys and down at that little creature, I found my eyes glassy and my voice shaking. Their original faces of bewilderment turned toward panic, and my oldest began to cry, promising “I didn’t mean to”and “I didn’t know.” My middle, whose emotions mainly display as anger, turned bitter, his voice short, and voluntarily lifted the bird and carried him back outside to the green grass. The bird still made no attempt to fly.

For the next several minutes, we had a few more tears, a little more anger, and too much lecturing from me. By filling the silence with noise, I justified moving on quickly from anything too messy. By telling my kids how they should feel, I rescued them from what they already felt. By naming the situation before they could process it, I found a way to assure them – and myself – everything was okay, when maybe it wasn’t.

Leaving the bird be – with hopes would miraculously wake from its daze and fly away – we all piled in the car to run off to whatever thing we had planned next. Driving out of the neighborhood, with a bit of fresh air coming through the windows, I finally remembered to quiet down, perhaps long enough to allow room for some empathy, some room to just be broken.

It’s a tricky path to navigate.  Protecting my kids’ innocence, while still wanting their hearts to be tender enough to ache.  Remembering my job is not to squeeze them into a mold.  Restraining from fixing my third grader’s spelling errors so he can write his own drafts before Mom gets out her red revision pen.

In a broken world – with war and unrest and children sitting alone at elementary school lunch tables – I desperately want my boys to be safe, happy, and loved, but I also want to allow them to feel discomfort; to not be so protected, numb or self-absorbed that they don’t recognize the pain of people around them.

It’s moments when we stare down at a dying bird or overhear a news report on school shootings that our little ones need a chance to ask a few questions. And while I’m not advocating trading in PBS morning cartoons for CNN, it does seem like kids deserve adults willing to wrestle with them through the hard stuff. Though I want to protect my sons from pain and harm, I also want them to see that the world is bigger than their neighborhood and that there are tragedies bigger than running out of Frosted Flakes in the morning.
On returning  home, my oldest son went back outside to check on the bird.  I wobbled between trepidation and pride as I watched through the window as he stooped to pick up that little creature, walk it slowly to the trash, and then make his way back into our door.

Guest Post: Margaret

In honor of the final weeks of summer, here’s a piece by a good friend and fellow teacher-writer, Jen Haberling.  Enjoy! ~

screen-shot-2015-06-24-at-9-17-03-pm

I didn’t know then how wise this woman was.  I didn’t realize how much her influence would permeate my own mothering.  Her sass is infamous.  Her one-liners, legendary.  And her red bikini, well, that’s another story altogether.  Margaret Ann McPhillamy Schaeffer, the youngest of13 Irish children, runs through my veins.  Her grit, her work-your-hands-to-the-bone mentality, her youthful attitude, her charisma and confidence, her competitive nature.  And sometimes even her flair for the dramatic.  I am proud to call her my grandmother.

Sharing shopping and lunch with Grandma was a tradition that my mom instituted while my sister and I were young, filling my elementary-librarian mom’s two personal days. The three of us would drive from Kalamazoo, after conspiratorily calling in “sick” to school, to meet in Grand Rapids for shopping, mostly at the ever-elegant Rogers Department Store, then head to Arnie’s for lunch, then more shopping at Woodland. I looked forward to the tradition every year, as I knew it would pad my middle school closet with Izod and Calvin Klein and ESPRIT.  That tradition had waned into my college years, though, as Mom’s cancer enveloped and finally defeated her frail body.

Grandma rarely called me, especially in my early married days, but I always looked forward to seeing her and sharing some time catching up.   It had been at least 15 years since Grandma and I had spent the day shopping and lunching.  On this day, however, it didn’t seem to be a leisurely shopping excursion she was after.  “Jen,” she said as I picked up the phone.  “Pick me up.  I have something I need to get at the store.”  The urgency in her voice led me to believe she needed a prescription refilled, or was out of milk– or maybe even out of beer.  She had lost her ability to drive in her early 90s, so I knew this must be an excursion that required a ride.

When I arrived, she met me at the top of her steps, the front door latching behind her.  She had one foot in my car before I could even greet her.  “Let’s go,” she commanded.  “I need to show those ladies at the Y a thing or two.”  I had no idea what Grandma was up to, but this didn’tseem to be about prescriptions or milk or beer.  Whatever she was up to, her competitive nature was clearly in control.  She clutched her handbag and directed me to 28th Street with curt and pointed turns, no time for chit chat.

We pulled into Rogers, walked through the haze of old-lady perfume that hung in the entrance, and headed straight to the juniors section.  This was not where I expected to go with Grandma. “Where are the swimsuits?”  Grandma asked.  I knew Grandma had a funky style all her own, but juniors-sized bathing suits?  The look on the clerk’s face following Grandma’s inquiry confirmed that I was not crazy– though Grandma might have been.  The clerk tried to steer Grandma to the older-woman section, but she would have none of it.  As she surveyed the racks lined up like summer-time soldiers before her, she demanded, “No– I don’t think you understand.  I want a red bikini.  Not an old, skirted grandma suit.  I want a spicy hot, resort-style, red bikini.  I have to show those ladies at the Y that I still have it.”

As she plucked three or four hangers from the rack, she invited me into the dressing room to help her select just the right style.  These were no modest tankinis.  They revealed more about my grandmother than I had ever seen.  As she adjusted her voluptuous bosom into the cups two handfuls at a time, she added a running commentary warning about the dangers of thinking oneself old, mingled with the wisdom of staying in shape.  “It’s all in your outlook, Jen,”  she reminded.  “You are only as old as you think you are.”   This was one of Grandma’s many mantras.  She kept pace with women a third her age, swimming daily and walking everywhere.  Her vanity revealed itself in her Este Lauder skin care regimen and embarrassment when anyone saw her hair prior to a proper combing.

I will never forget the look on that clerk’s face as she up-downed my 93-year-old grandma at the register, handing over the Baywatch-style, ruby-colored scraps of fabric.  I was clearly more self-conscious about this purchase than my grandma.  The clerk’s confused grimace haunted me all the way home, until I had time to call my sister and relay the unbelievable story, celebrating this vivacious woman who was the matriarch of our family, who I would later come to admire instead of question.

The notorious red bikini.  Like Grandma,it’s a story that will live on in the collective McPhillamy history.  It makes appearances at nearly every funeral or cousin gathering.  I’m sure she did show those ladies at the Y a thing or two– probably more than they wanted to see.  And she certainly showed me how to live well, to embrace myself, to walk confidently and to wear the red bikini with flair.